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Citizens entitled to full access in decision making

Maybe the word “transparency” isn’t ... well, transparent enough.

When we talk about government meetings and government records, maybe “access” is a better word.

Or, simply, “open.” Open meetings. Open records.

Whichever you prefer, we’re talking about the same thing: giving the public the chance to keep an eye on the actions of their local government leaders.

They’re doing that with greater success these days in Rock Falls, where new Mayor Bill Wescott is promoting “committee of the whole” meetings for City Council members to discuss issues among themselves and with the public.

Many government bodies have a reputation – deserved – for informal “pre-meetings” involving some members who hash out matters in advance of public sessions. Once the official meeting is open, decisions are quickly made with little or no discussion.

The state’s Open Meetings Act is specifically designed to allow the public to sit in on the entire decision-making process, not just the final vote. That law defines a “meeting” as a gathering “for the purpose of discussing public business” – not merely to reach a final decision.

The “committee of the whole” meetings are designed to open that decision-making process.

“It’s but another opportunity,” Wescott said this week. “Citizens can address [the City Council] and throw in their two cents here, too.”

No, it’s neither easy nor convenient to involve the public to that extent in policy decisions. But government isn’t intended to be easy or convenient; meetings should not be designed to get board members home in time to see the ballgame.

But convenience appeared to be a motivating factor recently in the village of Lyndon, when a series of telephone calls was substituted for a public meeting to make a decision about tree removal. Nothing indicates the matter was of an emergency nature that needed immediate attention.

We are not suggesting that it was an earth-shaking, life-altering decision – or even that it was the wrong decision.

But it was the wrong way to conduct local government business. And it’s likely that it was a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

That is especially troublesome because it’s at least the third time in the past year that questions have been raised about the village’s compliance with that law.

Whether you call it transparency, or access, or openness, it amounts to the same thing:

Citizens have a legal right to observe and record most of the discussions and all of the actions of their government officials.

The sooner all officials are on board with that concept, the better off everyone will be.

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